For Authors: Some Notes About Guns

Movies are wonderful things.  In fact, I’m looking forward to going to see the new Avengers movie later today.  I know, I know, I’m losing some comic book nerd cred by not seeing the absolute first showing, but the world doesn’t always agree with my best intentions.  Movies, at least the good ones, give us a new world to inhabit and much like books, a good movie will immerse you in that world.  In the real world most people will never be involved in a car chase or a shootout with Triad members in a Chinese tea house.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Think how exhausting life would be if every day was a new fight with Nazis or aliens or every trip to work was a do-or-die car chase with the cops.  Movies let us experience these things vicariously without all the tedious mayhem and destruction associated with constant action.  They also give us some false ideas of how things work in the real world.  If you’re going for the fantasy action sequence, movies are a great reference for writers.  If you’re going for the gritty realism, there’s nothing like actual experience to enhance the way you write about things.

Now, I’m not saying you need to get in a shootout or a car chase to have some good experience to draw on; that would just be ridiculous.  If you want some experience with what a car feels like at high speed, try going to a race track.  If you want some experience with guns, try shooting one.  At least in the States there are plenty of places that will let you rent a gun and teach you how to use it.  Actually feeling the heft of a gun in your hands and the kick when you squeeze the trigger is a very different experience from what you get watching Arnold mowing down hordes of enemies.

A little known line in the M-60 manual says it actually is okay to fire it shirtless.

A little known line in the M-60 manual says it actually is okay to fire it shirtless.

A very rare exception to the use of guns in a movie is 1995’s Heat.  There’s a scene toward the end where the robbers calmly walk out of the bank into a wall of cops.  The ensuing shoot out is extremely loud.  I’m not sure if Michael Mann intended to make the guns as loud as they were, but it worked.  It’s a hard sequence to watch and an even harder sequence to listen to but whoever mixed the sound got it – no pun intended – dead bang.  If you’ve never seen Heat, the scene in question is on YouTube and is well worth a watch.

A few things to note.  First, the guns are really loud.  The use of silence between the shots emphasizes exactly how loud assault rifles really are.  Second, there aren’t a whole lot of sections in the shootout where the actors go full auto.  Most of the time the actors shoot in smaller bursts.  In fact, if I recall correctly, modern US assault rifles don’t even come with a full-auto mode anymore; they’re limited to single shot or three shot burst.  The reason for this is simple: studies have proven again and again that after the third round most of the shots fired miss their target.  Limiting to three shot burst means a soldier has to carry less ammo because he or she is firing fewer rounds and the rounds that are fired are actually useful.

Aside from just how damned loud guns are there are a few other things to take note of when writing about them.

Learn about the guns you’re describing.  Henchmen had a fairly limited set of guns and I’d fired a couple of them already.  Arise added a couple more.  I had to do some research on the others.  The main character’s weapon was a sawed-off double barrel shotgun loaded with regular shot and Dragon Breath rounds.  I had to do some research on that gun because I’ve never come across one in the wild.  Sawed-offs are, to the best of my knowledge, illegal guns.  The double-barrel aspect was something else I needed to research.  Turns out a lot of doubles don’t fire both barrels at the same time, they’re designed with either two triggers or one trigger and a switch to determine which barrel to fire.

SawedOff

Breach loading double. This one has two triggers, each of which controls one barrel.

 

By the way, reading up the rounds you can fire through shotguns was an eye-opener.  The Dragon Breath rounds used in Henchmen are real and legal.  A couple of drunken idiots burned down half of Arizona a few years back shooting them off.

Whoosh.  Note the target.

Whoosh. Note the target.

I also made use of a fairly common military and civilian weapon: The Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun.  These things come in a wide variety of formats, but the basic model looks like this:

MP5

I’ve fired one of these at full-auto.  They’re really nice guns, and very well-behaved.  By which I mean, they’re easy to shoot.  Point it, punch it, as my dad used to say.  By the way, it is possible to legally own fully automatic weapons in certain parts of the United States.  The legality of weapons is something of a gray area in this country.  For a period of time it was legal to own a gun anywhere except Washington D.C.  That law was changed a while back after it was deemed unconstitutional.  I posted a blog entry on guns a bit back about some Texans who were carrying assault rifles around Texas in various danger-prone areas like Target stores.  The reason was a protest about open-carry laws in Texas.  It seemed Texas, of all places, forbade open-carry of pistols.  Assault rifles were cool, but pistols were verboten.

U.S. laws regarding firearms are strange because at a Federal level it’s perfectly legal to carry a pistol as long as it’s not concealed.  In some states it’s still not illegal.  New Mexico doesn’t seem care overmuch; I’ve seen people carrying pistols in Chipotle and no one bats an eye.  In other states, if you walk into a store with a pistol on your hip you’ll attract a lot of attention or get arrested.  A little research on the firearms posession laws of your characters can go a long way.

Which leads to these two bad-boys: the SPAS-12 and SPAS-15.  Certain variants of the SPAS-12 are legal to own, others are not.  The SPAS-15 is pretty much flat-out illegal.  These are the guns Jessica uses in Arise.  They’re beasts but I couldn’t see Jessica’s character happily using some small gun; she’s nothing if not over the top.

Both guns are semi-automatic combat shotguns.  Although, and here’s an interesting note, most semi-automatic shotguns have to go pump mode when they’re using certain low-power rounds such as the Dragon Breath rounds.  It seems Dragon Breath rounds don’t produce enough recoil to trigger the semi-automatic’s rechambering, which is one of those interesting but useless bits of trivia that can add a lot of realism.

As featured in Terminator

SPAS-12, as featured in Terminator

SPAS-15, for when you absolutely have to blow everything into tiny little pieces.

SPAS-15, for when you absolutely have to blow everything into tiny little pieces.

Concealed carry laws are becoming a bigger and bigger deal in the United States.  New Mexico is one of many states that allows concealed carry to licensed individuals.  Truthfully, all you have to do is take a class and prove a level of competence with your chosen weapon.  A perfect weapon for concealed carry is the Detonics .45, one of Steven’s guns in Arise.

Detonics

Affordable firepower in a tiny package.

Little details about your characters’ weapons can go a long way to making guns real to a reader is being able to accurately drop a bit of information about them.  Don’t go nuts and start spouting muzzle velocities and impact force unless it’s germane to the story and you can make it dramatic.

“Eve gets up and brushes herself off.  I hear her say “I really must get some bullet-proof clothes at some point” just before I squeeze the trigger and twenty hardened steel darts fly at Saxton’s face at 2,000 feet per second.” – Henchmen (describing firing a flechette round)

And that’s where things get dicey.  It’s possible to under-describe the effects a gun has and make the whole thing seem fake and trivial.  At the same time, it’s possible to go completely overboard and make it sound like a scientific paper.  Sometimes a simple note – 2,000 feet per second – can make for more dramatic reading than all the detailed description in the world.

By the way, those flechette shotgun rounds Steven’s using are real.  It’s amazing what people will fire out of a shotgun.  Also, both Google Chrome and MS Word don’t think flechette is spelled correctly.

Aside from the noise guns make and the little details and particulars about each gun, what else should you be aware of?  How about the kick?  Some guns have nary a kick: .22 rifles don’t give much push back.  Others will tear your shoulder off.  Shotguns are notorious for their kick.  The MP-5 didn’t kick much.  My Detonics bucks likes a bronco due to the large round and small frame.  An M-14 my dad used to have kicked like mule, but the AR-15 wasn’t as bad.  Each gun has a particular feel.

Now, onto the most common mistake.  If you’ve never fired a gun it’s easy to assume anyone can pick one up and be effective with it, but they’re a little trickier than that.  Unless your character is Bob Munden it’s unlikely he or she be able to shoot from the hip and hit anything.  Shaky hands mean the bullet usually misses.

Trained shooters usually follow a couple of basic stances: the Isosceles and the Weaver.  Both have variants but for our purposes they’ll work nicely.

weaverstance

The Weaver is what I was always taught to shoot from; the Isosceles always struck me as being unstable, but it works.  Any trained shooter will usually use one of these stances.

Some other notes:

Gunpowder has a particular smell.  It’s not quite like fireworks, but it’s pretty close.

There is such a thing as caseless ammunition.  It’s kind of cool, actually.

The common sidearm for U.S. military forces is currently the Beretta M9.  The U.S. switched from a .45 Colt 1911 to the 9mm M9 back in the 80s.  The logic was most of the European forces were using 9mm rounds so the U.S. ever got into a conflict in that area (read: Russia), ammunition would be easier to come by.

You can apparently fire almost anything out of a shotgun.

If you can think of anything else, drop it in the comments and I’ll get it added.  If you’ve got questions or something needs to be explained more, post a comment or send me an email.

Thanks for reading and happy writing!

 

Book Review – Tattoo Style by Paul Brownlie

I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo lately.  And by lately, I mean the last decade or so.  I’ve been in Las Vegas many times in the past decade and the place is lousy with Tattoo parlors.  Hell, Vince Neil had a parlor there and I was even in town when it was still open.  The closest I ever came was walking out of Aureole after a chef’s choice of twelve small plates each paired with wine.  Apparently there are rules about drunk people getting tatted up.

So, I guess the bottom line is I’ll probably never get around to getting inked, which is kind of a pity because tats are pretty cool.  If you get a good one, that is.  With my luck, I’d end up with the American equivalent of this:

chinese_tattoos

Definitely not going for the Chinese characters.  I’d consider Japanese but that’s only because I work with a guy who actually knows Japanese and could steer me away from nonsense terms.

The Asian character, cool though they may be, really pale in comparison to what you can get when you get an actual tattoo artist who knows how to draw a tattoo.  Those guys are amazing and the intricate details they put into their art are what really set them apart.  Because, let’s be honest, why would you want this:

Yes, that is Patrick Swayze as a centaur. Let me reiterate: Patrick Swayze as a centaur.

Yes, that is Patrick Swayze as a centaur. Let me reiterate: Patrick Swayze as a centaur.

When you could have this:

074

©2015 Paul Brownlie

Which leads us to the book review portion of this rambling post about tattoos and Patrick Swayze centaurs.  Most book reviews are of novels.  I feel pretty comfortable writing those because I’ve written novels.  I know what goes into a novel and have a pretty good idea of what I like in them.  Paul Brownlie’s Tattoo Style Art is a whole other beast because now I’m looking at art.  Very good art.  Personally, I’m terrible at art.  I passed drawing 101 in college by the skin of my teeth and I think it may have only been because my graphic design teacher convinced my illustration teacher that I would never enter her classroom again if I passed the class.

I’m going to fall back on the old standby “I know what I like” model of art review and say, “This is a good book.”  I like the art.  I like the style.  I like the fact that these are the classic, old-school, kick-ass tattoos that define what a tattoo is instead of a single Chinese character that may or may not mean Happiness in the Mouth.  The meaning of a classic tattoo is “I was enough of a badass to get this kick-ass design inked into me.”

Here’s another one.  I’m not a huge fan of clowns, so this one’s out for me, but it’s still a skillful design and execution.

©2015 Paul Brownlie

©2015 Paul Brownlie

Now, here’a bit of a personal note for you: I love watches.  When I finished Henchmen and hit publish and that sucker went live I decided to celebrate with a new watch.  I found a Swatch with a koi on it and thought it was perfect.  I wear it to work regularly and honestly don’t care how it looks with slacks and a dress shirt.  I love that watch, largely because of the koi.  For those who don’t know the koi are symbolic for, among other things, perseverence and good fortune.  I figured after writing a first novel, I had earned the perseverence part.  I’m still waiting on the good fortune part but, as we’ve already established, I’ve got the perseverence part down.

Which leads here, to a tattoo I’m seriously considering getting, if Paul okays it, of course.

076

©2015 Paul Brownlie

If you’d like to see the rest of Paul Brownlie’s amazing tattoo art, you can get a copy of his book Tattoo Style Art for only a $1.99.  Trust me, if you’re interested in tattoo art, it’s 2 bucks well spent.  Who knows, maybe you’ll find one you like.  If not, there’s still some pretty spectacular illustration in the book.

Get it here

Conquer the Dreaded Table of Contents

Edited 09/26/2015: There’s still some fairly useful information in here, but there’s a far easier way to make a better looking TOC in Word.  See my latest post on it here.

There’s a lot of debate in the eBook world about whether or not eBooks actually need a Table of Contents.  The trends is leaning toward short story and anthology collections should definitely have one and novels may not need one.  Personally, I like the idea of a TOC in novels but that’s just because I’ll usually go back and read parts of a book later.  A TOC makes that a lot easier to do.  I’ve also been toying with the idea of adding a last page enty into my table of contents to support people like me who like to read the last page of a novel just to see what happens.

Fortunately, making a decent Table of Contents is fairly easy in Word.  Formatting it is a bit trickier but by no means rocket surgery.  It’s just step intensive and prone to failure.  Before you begin remember a couple things: have a backup of your book and Ctrl-Z (undo) is your friend.  We’re going to start with a raw Word doc (it’s got story titles and the first paragraphs of some of the stories I’m working on) and proceed through making a table of contents and formatting it for an eBook.

If you want to make life easy for yourself, get the whole book done before you even begin tackling this.  I’m not kidding here, you want the whole thing done and ready to go.  The TOC is absolutely the last thing you want to do because any changes in the text will mean you have to rebuild the TOC.

As a side note, this is an image-heavy post but the images are actually useful (unlike most of what I put in blog posts), so check them out.

This whole post springs off an earlier post about eBook formatting that I felt lacked some of the necessary steps to make it really useful.  Before you begin, make sure you’ve got some software handy and a basic understanding of how to use it.

Calibre (a wonderful and free eBook converter)

Sigil (a piece of software that will let you crack open ePub files and modify the HTML inside of them directly)

Kindle Previewer (an Amazon tool that will let you convert ePub to mobi using Amazon’s KindleGen software and see what your final file will look like on a Kindle)

A word processor (I used Word 2010, Libre Office and OpenOffice have similar features and cost much less)

To get started I mocked up a collection of stories and added a couple paragraphs from each one.  This is just meant to represent a normal document.  Your manuscript is probably a bit longer than two pages.  Normally you’d have page breaks between the stories but that’s beside the point and I’m a bit lazy tonight. (Click each picture to embiggen them, or right click and open in a new tab).

The actual stories will be out later this summer

The actual stories will be out later this summer

Not much to see here.  This is just some story titles and some text using Word’s default styles.  That’s okay because this is about the dreaded Table of Contents not the rest of the book.  The rest of the book is actually much easier to deal with.

We’re going to start by telling Word what constitutes a chapter header and, therefore, what to add to the table of contents.  You’ll do this with your good buddy styles.  To be frank, all your formatting should be done with styles, and making your TOC starts with styles.  Mark each story title with a Heading 1 style (you can format it to your heart’s content).  Select the text you want to make a TOC and click the Heading 1 style.  Boom.  Done.

I don't know who decided Word's default styles but they're pretty bad.

I don’t know who decided Word’s default styles but they’re pretty bad.

As you mark things with Heading 1 the navigation panel on the left fills in with data.  You can, like, totally click on those lines and they’ll take you to the points in the document.  Navigariffic.  This is, incidentally, the only formatting I do while I’m writing and that’s just because it makes it so much easier to navigate around the document.

From here, add a new blank page and add a Table of Contents.  This part is pretty trivial because Word loves you so much.

What's wrong with this picture.

What’s wrong with this picture.

Only one problem: eBooks don’t have page numbers because they’re really nothing more than a website running off your reader.  So, we need to get rid of those page numbers.  Should be easy, right?  Wrong.  Why?  Because Word hates you.  If you try to just highlight the part you don’t want and delete it you’ll wind up deleting the whole line and that’s where your good buddy Ctrl-Z comes in so handy.  This is also why you have a backup.

You do have a backup right?

To rid yourself of the hated page numbers, place the cursor right after the the text of the chapter title and press delete once.  This will remove all of the elipses (Are they still elipses when there’s more than 3?  Inquiring minds want to know) and you’ll have something that looks like this: titlenumber.  Leave the cursor where it is and press shift and the right arrow key until the whole number is highlighted.  Then press delete.  Bam!  You’ve got a clean chapter line.

TOCMods

Word looks like it’s highlighting the entire TOC, but it’s really not. This is just to confuse you.

Now, just to get fancy we’re going to put a little blurb under the title.  Don’t move the cursor, just press Enter and type up something.

TOCWBlurb

Great for anthologies!

It’s ugly now, but that can be changed.  We’ll make a couple new styles and do some formatting.  To make a new style, right click anywhere in your text that you want the new style applied to, go to styles and click Save selection as new quick style.  Give it a name (I called mine TOC blurb) and click the modify button.  Now you can tweak the layout and font choices.  Be careful with fonts; Kindles have a limited font set that they’ll display in.  If memory serves, they tend to convert to Georgia, although I’ve good luck with common fonts like Arial, Times, and Garamond.  Don’t go nuts with your fonts and definitely don’t use Papyrus or Comic Sans.

CSS O' Matic

CSS O’ Matic

NewStyle

Style names can be clever but no one but you will ever see them.

NewStyleMods

Modify!

I’ve selected 11pt Arial (the size is kind of immaterial), Italic, with a .5″ indent.  I also made some other styles for the chapter titles and the Contents line.  The style looks okay, not great, but works to show off what you can do.  Again, no Papyrus or Comic Sans.  Also, Old English script doesn’t make things look classy; it makes them look gangsta.

TOCModFinal

So, that works.  Convert it to epub however you wish (I used Calibre) and open the converted epub file in Sigil.  Remember how I said an ebook is really nothing more than a website?  This is what your epub looks like when you crack it open in Sigil.

SigilBookView

Book View

The damned chapter titles are blue and underlined!  WTF?

Don’t fret.  The chapter titles are hyperlinks (<a href …> tags) that link internally to the document.  Default styling for a hyperlink is underlined blue.  Switch it over the code view and you can see what’s going on better.

Code view. Note the highlighted line.

Code view. Note the highlighted line.

Right above the highlighted line is a bit of text that reads <a class=”text_”… This is a reference to your CSS stylesheet class that controls how the book renders.  On the left hand side of Sigil is a list of folders.  If you look in Styles for stylesheet.css and open that file you’ll get the following.  I’ve already scrolled this all the way down the .text_ {} line and done some modifications.  First, I set the color to black and removed the line that did say text-decoration: underline.

CSSMods

Note in the preview pane the chapter title is still underlined.  We can fix that guy’s little red wagon, but you’ll see in the final that it doesn’t do much due to the way Kindles have been coded to render files.  Since our chapter titles are just hyperlinks and hyperlinks are, by default, underlined, we can add a new bit of CSS code to override the default <a> tag behavior.

It's just a few lines.

It’s just a few lines.

Down at the very bottom (or really wherever you feel like putting it) add the following code:

a{text-decoration:none;}

It's just a few lines.

It’s just a few lines.

Now look at your preview.  No underline, yo.  Fo shizzle!

Save the file and open it in Kindle Previewer to convert to Mobi and see how it’ll look on a Kindle.  You should see something similar to this:

KindlePreviewer

The titles are back to being underlined.  Not much you can do with that, it’s just the way Kindles render those hated <a> tags.  In the final analysis, though, this isn’t really a bad thing.  Underlining provides a visual cue to your readers that they can click or tap something and move around the document.

Upload your new mobi file and you should be good to go.

Questions? Comments?  Drop a comment and I’ll get back to you.